Thursday, May 24, 2012

The Kitchen Chronicles - Part 1

Biscotti in the Garage
After 15 years we are finally redoing our 1970’s kitchen.  When we moved into our house we slapped some paint on the walls and cabinets and said to ourselves “some day.”  Well “some day” has arrived. It has taken a fair amount of saving and a huge dose of courage.  I had lived through a remodel at my parents’ home and hadn’t enjoyed doing the dishes in the bathtub and existing on microwave meals.  This time around I am extraordinarily lucky to have a husband that has the experience and desire to recreate a temporary kitchen in our garage. 
Kitchen before demolition
Breakfast room
Current state of kitchen
Breakfast room 
I’ve never ever liked our garage, partly because parking in it required a fair amount of courage that I wasn’t going to scrape off the paint on our cars as I backed out.  Also getting into and out of our cars in the garage required a yoga type contortion that my body just never enjoyed.  Well, I take it all back.  Little garage, I will never bad mouth you again.  This garage will keep me sane and somewhat patient over the next 4 or 5 months.  It now houses all of our appliances and a few of our cabinets from the old kitchen.  And for this I will be eternally grateful. 
The Kitchen Garage
The temporary kitchen was christened this week with my first batch of cookies.  I chose to make biscotti for a friend.  These are the best cookies to make as gifts because they refuse to go stale and are sturdy enough to handle packing and travel.  In fact, these ancient cookies were originally made for travelers, soldiers, sailors, and even Christopher Columbus took them on his voyages.  Many other cultures have their versions of biscotti.  In the United Kingdom there is the rusk; in Germany it is the zwieback, and the Easter European Jews call it mandelbrodt.

The literal translation of biscotti is “twice cooked.”  While these cookies can keep for up to 3 months they are too tasty to stick around that long. This is a versatile recipe.  If the classic Italian anise isn’t to your taste, try lemon or orange.  You can also add toasted nuts or dried fruit or chocolate chips.
Traditionally in Italy biscotti are served with a drink into which they can be dunked.   This recipe is from Chez Panisse Desserts by Lindsey Shere.  I’ve made a slight alteration by substituting some of the flour for cornmeal. I prefer a fine grind of cornmeal, but medium grinds work too.
 Aunt Victoria’s Biscotti
½ cup butter
¾ cup sugar
2 eggs
1 teaspoon vanilla, lemon, orange or anise extract
2 cups plus 2 tablespoon flour (or 1 ½ cup flour, 2 tablespoon flour and ½ fine ground cornmeal)
1 ½ teaspoon baking powder
¼ teaspoon salt
Optional: Liqueur- 1 tablespoon grappa or sambuca or pastis or anisette or pernod and 1 teaspoon aniseed

Preheat oven to 325 degrees
Cream the butter and sugar until fluffy.
Beat in the eggs until mixture is smooth.
Add the extract (and liqueur if you are using it).
By hand fold in the flour, baking powder, and salt until just mixed
Now add nuts or chips or seeds if desired.

On a lightly floured board or counter, gently make two equal sized logs.  
Set them on a baking sheets and bake them on a middle rack in the oven for 25 minutes, or until they are set and lightly brown.
Cool the logs for 5-10 minutes.  Then slice them diagonally about ½ inch thick.
Lay slices back on the baking sheets and return to the oven for approximately 10 minutes to toast them.  Turn the slices over to dry for another 10 minutes.  Cool and then store in a tightly covered container.
toasted biscotti

Saturday, May 5, 2012

I have a plant crush, and its name is Lemon Verbena

I’m more of a flower gardener, but this plant more than makes up for its lack of blooms with its lush lemony scent.  I knew vaguely about this plant, but hadn’t any firsthand experience with it until a friend made a tea with the leaves of the plant. Now I’m never going to be without it; we’re going to be inseparable. Lemon verbena, I love you, and I hope I introduce others to your intoxicating charm.  
Since this is basically a tropical herb, verbena needs its roots protected from frost.  So winter your potted plants indoors or in a greenhouse and don't feel bad when your plant drops all of its leaves. Lemon verbena goes dormant during the winter.  My potted plant made it through a Bay Area winter on my outdoor patio which is sheltered by the house, and by April it was looking happy again. Once the temperature and day length increases the leaves will reappear.  At least once during the summer cut back your plant by about half its size.  While you gather its leaves for use, you will be promoting new growth.  Pinching out the tips of the plant will also keep it bushy.  Lemon verbena can also be easily propagated by cuttings from new growth.  They make great little gifts, and in the process may encourage others to get the lemon verbena crush too!

You can dry the leaves individually or on the stalk.  I like to wash the leaves and dry them on a paper towel before placing them on a cookie sheet in my oven.  The pilot light keeps my oven warm and helps dry the leaves quickly and thoroughly.  If you have an electric oven try heating it up on the lowest setting, then turn off the oven and put the lemon verbena in to dry.  I store the dried leaves in a ziplock bag. If you decide to dry them on the stalk, hang the stems upside-down in a cool, dry, dark place.

Lemon verbena does make a great tea!  Personally, my favorite way to enjoy it is mixed with English Breakfast tea.  I put 1-2 leaves in my hot water and let them steep for a few minutes before adding my English Breakfast tea.  Fresh or dried leaves work equally well.  

Try this great iced tea from The Garden Entertaining Cookbook by Barbara Scott-Goodman & Mary Goodbody:

Iced Mint and Lemon Verbena Tea
serves 6
2 quarts of water
2 tablespoons mint leaves or mint tea
1 tablespoon and 1 teaspoon honey
8 springs lemon verbena
lemons slices to garnish
Bring the water to a full boil in a large saucepan.  Add the tea, and remove the pan from the heat.  Cover and let stand for 5 minutes.  Add the honey and stir until dissolved.  Add the lemon verbena and let stand for 5 more minutes. Strain and let cool to room temperature.  Refrigerate for at least 2 hours.  Serve over ice and garnish with lemon slices.